I had been off the meat for 10 years before I decided last year to finally go whole-hog (pardon the expression) vegan. Moving to Brooklyn from South Carolina made it significantly easier to maintain a plant-based diet. But, along with vegans, the tattoo-per-capita ratio is much higher in Brooklyn, and there's considerable overlap. Has it always been this way?
The first recorded people to get inked are believed to have been in ancient Egypt, somewhere around 2,000 BCE, though recent discoveries suggest it may have been even thousands of years earlier during the Ice Age. The Smithsonian says the first discovered mummies with tattoos were often discarded by excavators as being of "dubious status" (punks!), but the marks were probably used as ritualistic amulets to protect births. The instruments used were a bundle of tied-together needles, often made of bone, which is very similar to ones used as late as the 19th century in England.
For ink, they used soot, burned wood, or oil, and even a bit of breast milk. One ink recipe attributed to an ancient Roman physician called for wood bark, corroded bronzes, and insect eggs.
It wasn't until 1891 that the electric tattooing machine came to market. Other places in the world do tattooing differently: Just a few years ago in Samoa, for example, someone I know got a tattoo done traditional style, meaning with a boar's tooth dipped in ink, a plank of wood to slap it, and no anesthesia besides a warm 40 oz. beer.
There are vegan tattoos, but outside veggie hotspots like New York City, Portland, and Los Angeles, they can be hard to find. You might have to ask an artist which products they use and do the research yourself.
There are a few places that openly advertise vegan tattoo processes in Brooklyn, where I live, but some people say you can't obtain the same depth of color without all the animal products. Myles Karr, co-owner of Williamsburg's busy Three Kings Tattoo, which has an artist specializing in vegan tattooing, said he thinks the animal-free black ink isn't as solid because it's supposed to be carbon-based, which is where the bone comes in. Vegan alternatives sometimes contain plastic, and some clients balk at having plastic under their skin instead of something organic.
"I've never found anything that works as well," said Karr, who dabbles in ink-making himself. "It sucks that you can't live your life completely vegan. Where do you draw the line? It's really difficult to remove all the elements from your life." Another shop told me people inquire more about the trendy new black-light ink than vegan ink.
In times of ethical crisis like this I turn to my friend J.P. Piteo, a coworker and compendium of cruelty-free esoterica. In addition to being the longest tenured vegan in my quiver (13 years), she's tattooed from ear to ankle. She didn't learn about the ink issue until five years after her first tattoo and well into her vegan career.